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Posted at 12:45 PM ET, 07/08/2011

Is ‘planking’ connected to the slave trade?


Four Thai people performing the lying down game, also known as "planking," on the stairs of a shopping mall in Bangkok, Thailand. (APICHART WEERAWONG/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

This post has been updated with quotes from Sam Weckert.

“Is planking racist?”

This is the question poised about the popular fad after rapper Xzibit and other Twitter users said the seemingly innocuous trend has a sinister past. (In case you’re not familiar with it, planking requires you to lie straight. Face down. That’s it.)

“Planking was a way to transport slaves on ships during the slave trade, its [sic] not funny,” Xzibit tweeted. “Educate yourselves.”

Planking has risen in popularity over the past year as a viral prank with people posting photos of themselves lying face down stiff as a board in random locations. A “plank” is “a heavy thick board” by definition.

The game was reportedly created by Brits Gary Clarkson and Christian Langdon, who called it the “lying down game.” Shortly after, Australian Sam Weckert and his friends rebranded started taking pictures of themselves “planking” on dance floors and, after a radio station publicized the game, it caught fire on the Internet.

Weckert said in a message that he and his friends chose the word because they were “imitating a plank of wood, lying stiff, straight and lifeless,” and that the term has no “deliberate connection” to the slave trade.

Now, even celebrities — such as Usher and Rosario Dawson — are doing it.

Gawker’s Adrian Chen addressed the question Thursday, coming to the conclusion that planking is not racist: “It's just stupid.”

“Just goes to show the lengths that old people of all races will go to to squash the latest thing their kids are doing to freak them out,” Chen wrote.

But the term does have some connection to the slave trade, said Marcus Rediker, a professor of Atlantic history at the University of Pittsburgh and author of “The Slave Ship: A Human History.”

“To plank” was not necessarily a verb used by slave ship merchants and captains, Rediker said in an e-mail. But the planks “of the lower deck are precisely where millions of Africans were forced to lie and sleep on the Middle Passage, in conditions of utter horror that defy description,” he said. 
The Brookes print of a slave ship.

Rediker points to the “Brookes” image of a slave ship, showing what he calls “the flat, stiff arrangement of bodies on board,” created by the Plymouth Chapter of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

“What I find most powerful about the controversy is the way in which we are haunted by the popular memory of the slave ships,” Rediker said. “No matter what the intention of the founders of the recent fad, there is a connection to the slave trade and it is a painful one, not least because we have been reluctant to face this part of our common history.”

But it’s important to stress that there isn’t a “deliberate connection” to the word’s past.

“Being born and bred as an Australian, I have very little knowledge of the slave trade and it’s (sic) practices,” Weckert said. “I can understand that some people in the community would find this offensive, but let it be known that the name and practice of ‘planking’ has, in our eyes, no deliberate connection to the unfortunate events that occurred during the slave trade.”

By  |  12:45 PM ET, 07/08/2011

 
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